Fran O'Sullivan: NZ voice missing on Li Keqiang visit

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Is is obvious that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will visit New Zealand after Australia, writes Fran O'Sullivan.
Is is obvious that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will visit New Zealand after Australia, writes Fran O'Sullivan.

Want to know what's going on in New Zealand's external affairs? Ask Australia.

It's a facetious comment.

But I've experienced a profound sense of deja vu this week reading many influential Australian commentaries spelling out what should be on Malcolm Turnbull's agenda when Li Keqiang visits on March 24 (apart from the Sydney Swans game) when it is obvious the Chinese Premier will also come to New Zealand.

NZ's message - that this nation wants to partner with China to keep the global trade system open - is not being voiced.

Yet Australia has its megaphone out.

There have even been suggestions our bigger neighbour should be the go-between with China and the US to avert a trade war - which seems unlikely given Australia's alliance status with the United States and Li's own sanguine approach on the issue.

The premier expressed "optimism for a bright future" in US relations under Donald Trump at his annual press conference in Beijing this week.

According to Rowan Callick, The Australian's redoubtable China correspondent, Li vowed China would continue to be a "strong driving force" in the face of the sluggish global recovery, championing economic globalisation and free trade.

"We do not believe a closed-door policy or beggar-thy-neighbour approach would make anyone a winner," he said.

That Li does not presage a trade war between China and the US should not surprise. Trump affirmed the One China policy in his phone call with President Xi Jinping.

Potently, as a businessman who has experienced the corrective force of creditors breathing down his neck, Trump is hardly immune to one glaring reality: China's position as a key creditor of the United States.

The Australian China Business Council also reckons Australia should be closely involved in crafting China's version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the rival Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which also includes the Asean bloc).

But none of this is as daring as the New Zealand initiative to try and bring China into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) - a subject which has been under discussion behind scenes - but which has had little public debate because the Government had not even acknowledged (at least at time this column was filed) that Li is on the way.

(It doesn't take much deductive power to work out NZ is on Li's itinerary as visits by powerful Chinese leaders are usually bracketed with their official visits to Australia).

But here's the thing. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced on February 8 that Li would visit Australia on March 24. In New Zealand, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully - who also met visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on his preparatory trip to Australasia - would not even name Li let alone disclose the date of his arrival.

Reuters reported McCully saying, "We were setting the scene for a range of high level meetings and engagements."

The agency - which clearly hadn't noted Bishop's comments - went on to say that the foreign minister had declined to say which leaders from the two countries were meeting or when they would meet.

McCully did disclose the upgrade of the nation's bilateral free trade agreement was also on the agenda for the Yi talks as well as NZ's role in China's One Belt, One Road strategy.

"We are countries that have led the way in the (free trade) process and need to show leadership again in demonstrating...the benefits of continuing down this path," he is reported as saying.

As Wang put it, China and New Zealand are both advocates and practitioners of free trade; the two countries should jointly safeguard the international trade system, build an open economy, take practical actions to this end and start negotiations on the upgrade of the bilateral free trade agreement.

"China also hopes to work with New Zealand to well manage the docking between the 'Belt and Road' initiative and New Zealand's infrastructure construction plans as well as strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges and judicial and law enforcement cooperation, so as to let the two peoples feel more tangible outcomes."

This is all good stuff at a time when the Reserve Bank, politicians and media are focusing on the possible resurgence of protectionism.

But the public positioning is just is not happening.

This secrecy is par for the course, as was obvious by last year's TPP signing ceremony where the date was barely confirmed before the trade ministers departed for Auckland.

Bill English will have an opportunity to make some positioning statements in his trade speech next Friday.

But a shift to early openness would be welcome. Those Aussie newspaper subscriptions are expensive.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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